Monday, September 26, 2005

Movie Review

Review: March of the Penguins and Grizzly Man: Pathetic, Fallacious, Poetic, Prophetic

Movies are a great medium for showing us other ways of life, human as well as animal. Yet the market-oriented movie producers are so convinced that audiences want only the same old melodramatized versions of existence that not only are stories set in foreign countries distorted to make other people over in our image, but even animal behavior is sentimentalized to reassure us in our ignorance.

--Pauline Kael, "Movie for Young Children: Born Free and Around the World Under the Sea," Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968)
It doesn't happen only in America. March of the Penguins was made by a French team of documentarians who took their advanced video technology to Antarctica to capture the bizarrely arduous reproductive cycle of the emperor penguins. The filmmakers got astonishing footage of the birds on land and underwater, from a distance, overhead, and up close--"intimate" you might say if they weren't birds. Every step is documented: the annual journey inland to the grounds where the birds court and mate and where the females lays single eggs, which the huddling males keep warm against wintry blasts while the females waddle off for several months to feed; the hatching of the chicks; the return of the females and the departure of the males; and so forth. Because the filmmakers condense an entire round of generation into 85 minutes, March of the Penguins functions as a dream visit to the zoo. You aren't actually there, but you couldn't see more than this movie shows you if you were. In terms of visual information it's satisfying beyond imagining.

The material is totally absorbing, though because it's about birds I hesitate to refer to it as "dramatic." Such a qualm, however, doesn't stop the moviemakers from discussing the birds' behavior in human terms. Morgan Freeman, intoning the dreadful narration, tells us at the outset it's a story about "love" without, however, telling us how you determine the nature of penguin emotions. They plainly mean "love" in human terms, almost as baldly as Disney cartoons do. The narration also talks about the penguins' having "chosen" to remain in Antarctica after it broke off from the other continental land masses and drifted south, as if they were the hardy members of a green commune determined to tough it out in a changing environment.

Being a penguin is not a virtue, it's simply a fact. And despite the narration, what we witness can be explained as deriving entirely from the animals' biological instincts, which offer a far more interesting subject for speculation. For instance, I can see how the penguins' weird, wobbly, punishing ritual of reproduction might result as a random mutation among bird species, but it's awfully difficult to think of it as a superior form of adaptation. What were the competitively inferior species like? The wonder of March of the Penguins is that moviemakers who seem not to understand their subject nonetheless capture it faithfully. Though they sentimentalize their subject, the reproductive cycle gives it a natural shape that they respect. They're better moviemakers than they are naturalists, but they're such solid, orderly videographers that their work functions as naturalism despite their misguided intention to give us a "love" story.

In his famous 1856 essay from Modern Painters (1843-1860), the English critic John Ruskin wrote about what he termed the "pathetic fallacy," the projection by poets of human emotion onto the natural world. He saw the "pathetic," i.e., emotional, quality of a poet's imagination as a root strength; the "fallacious" quality was the degree to which the poet's vision was distorted by emotion such that he lost "government" of his artistic means. As an example he contrasted Dante, whom he considered a poet of the first order, with Coleridge, whom he placed below:

Thus, when Dante describes the spirits falling from the bank of Acheron "as dead leaves flutter from a bough," he gives the most perfect image possible of their utter lightness, feebleness, passiveness, and scattering agony of despair, without, however, for an instant losing his own clear perception that these are souls, and those are leaves; he makes no confusion of one with the other. But when Coleridge speaks of

The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,

he has a morbid, that is to say, a so far false, idea about the leaf: he fancies a life in it, and will, which there are not; confuses its powerlessness with choice, its fading death with merriment, and the wind that shakes it with music.
This leads Ruskin to erect a hierarchy among men who speak about the natural world under the power of emotion, starting with

the man who perceives rightly, because he does not feel, and to whom the primrose is very accurately the primrose, because he does not love it. Then, secondly, the man who perceives wrongly, because he feels, and to whom the primrose is anything else than a primrose: a star, or a sun, or a fairy's shield, or a forsaken maiden. And then, lastly, there is the man who perceives rightly in spite of his feelings, and to whom the primrose is for ever nothing else than itself--a little flower, apprehended in the very plain and leafy fact of it, whatever and how many soever the associations and passions may be, that crowd around it. And, in general, these three classes may be rated in comparative order, as the men who are not poets at all, and the poets of the second order, and the poets of the first; only however great a man may be, there are always some subjects which ought to throw him off his balance; some, by which his poor human capacity of thought should be conquered, and brought into the inaccurate and vague state of perception, so that the language of the highest inspiration becomes broken, obscure, and wild in metaphor, resembling that of the weaker man, overborne by weaker things.
This last group comprises the prophets, "who, strong as human creatures can be, are yet submitted to influences stronger than they, and see in a sort untruly, because what they see is inconceivably above them."

In Ruskin's scheme, the makers of March of the Penguins would be poets of the second order. In Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man there is also a man with a videocamera filming animals--in this case grizzly bears in the Katmai National Park on the Alaska Peninsula--and projecting his feelings onto them. (Click here for a gallery of Quang-Tuan Luong's photos of bears in Katmai.) In Grizzly Man, however, the poet of the second order is not the documentarian himself but his subject: Timothy Treadwell (1957-2003), an alcoholic, failed actor, who spent 13 summers living among the grizzlies. Herzog shaped this 103-minute documentary from 100 hours of footage Treadwell shot up to October 2003 when he and his reluctant girlfriend Amie Huguenard stayed later past the season than usual and were attacked and eaten by a hungry bear looking for a feed before hibernation.

Treadwell spent most of those summers alone and while he shot a certain amount of footage of bears swimming, feeding, fighting (including the most harrowing male-male animal scuffle I've ever seen), etc., he would also set the camera up and step in front of it to "share" what he thought and felt about the animals. He rates better than a poet of the second order as a visual artist, though not because he's in perfect control of his medium. In fact, it's precisely because Treadwell wasn't a professional photographer that his footage is different from what you see in other nature films: there isn't the usual pictorial and informational remove from the raw natural world. Treadwell considered himself one with the bears, and foxes, which gives his footage a strange home-movie quality. Some of his shots do have the startlingly vivid quality of calendar photography but at other times they achieve effects he doesn't seem sophisticated enough to have planned--the impressionistic quality of watercolor. Oddly, the presence of the setting is also further enhanced by Treadwell's outright amateur moves--speaking to the camera that he himself is holding as he walks or that he has set on the ground inside his collapsed tent.

Since we go into the movie knowing of his death, Treadwell's footage also has a double-edged feel due to our unease at his ease among the bears. Treadwell, who can be seen moving in close to the bears and speaking conversationally to them, was the proverbial fool who rushed in. But even when he's partially obscuring the view, and yapping like a Fandango paper bag puppet, we can share his fool's rapture--if we have eyes in our head--and yet we never lose our sense of his folly. Treadwell imagined he was a "kind warrior" come to protect the bears from the depredations of poachers and that he had a special communion with the beasts, but his monologuing is so self-regarding and arbitrary, really, that he can't see what we perceive readily, that he's in way over his head. At one point he says several times in quick succession, "I will die for these animals," and the only part of the sentence that doesn't turn out to be true is the word "for."

Much of Treadwell's videography is shot through with a numinous quality, not because of his devotion to the environment but despite it. It is, in fact, Treadwell's wild projections onto the grizzlies that make him a poet of the second order. Herzog, who remains immune to Treadwell's projections and to his self-regard, works here as a poet of the first order. The director casts an extremely cold eye over Treadwell's career in the wilds. His ironic view, however, doesn't turn into satire--you may laugh at Treadwell, who, best guess, suffered from a personality disorder, but Herzog doesn't have to distort anything to get the laughs.

On a superficial level Treadwell is ridiculous because he's highly mannered--picking at his receding hair while addressing the camera as if it were an audience or as if there were someone operating it (and sometimes reshooting scenes as if he were working from a script for a specific project), selecting from a variety of bandanas for a scene he's about to shoot, telling "us" all about himself (i.e., he's not gay though he might wish he were because having anonymous sex at truck stops would be easier than romancing women), speaking to the wildlife using the Disneyesque names he's given them ("Hello, Mr. Chocolate!"), sizing himself up as a figure of legend. Herzog includes footage of Treadwell's appearance as a celebrity animal activist on "The Late Show with David Letterman" (during which he described Alaskan brown bears as mostly harmless "party animals"), and it seems perfect. Treadwell shows just what it takes to be a "star" in nonfiction TV programming: his narcissism is thick and his personality is thin. (The only scenes Herzog shot that feel phony in this way are those involving Treadwell's ex-girlfriend Jewel Palovak, in one of which, for instance, she receives the wristwatch Treadwell was wearing when he died.)

But there's a deeper problem. Treadwell, who had no expertise in zoology, says he's there to protect and to study the grizzlies, but as Herzog's interviews with experts reveal, the bears aren't in any ecological danger in this habitat and if Treadwell had studied them he might have recognized the warning signs that the bear who killed him was hungry to the point of desperation, something Treadwell's own footage of that bear reveals.

Treadwell is thus another of Herzog's monomaniacs, easily the most amusing but also the most affecting because his plight doesn't come from Herzog the screenwriter's determination that a protagonist be an irretrievably solitary man goggling in the midst of meaningless human activity. In Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), for instance, Klaus Kinski plays the Spanish conquistador who takes over a misbegotten 16th-century trek into the Peruvian jungle to find the city of El Dorado. The Spaniards, with their outlandish desire to impress themselves on the New World, are defeated by their ignorant illusions about what they're up against. They're picked off easily by the arrows of the Indians whose lives are so integrated into the jungle that the Spanish can't even spot them. In the end, Aguirre, on a dying ship of fools overtaken by monkeys, is projecting even more grandiose schemes than before, and Herzog simply circles, watching. It's an extraordinary movie, an anti-epic about European conquest that, while based in part on the diary of the priest Gaspar de Carvajal who accompanied an ill-fated historical expedition, is as macabre as a Poe story. History, turned inside out to reveal its gist, becomes a sunlit tropical nightmare.

In Aguirre Herzog and his cinematographer Thomas Mauch make us especially aware of how the trappings of civilization that the Spaniards bring with them--the sedan chairs, the armor, the brocades, the sexual and social customs--become encumbrances in a primitive natural world that seems literally to seethe around them. (The telephoto shot of the churning river is the emblem of the expedition's, of man's, fate.) Even a horse becomes a liability if it can't cope with the terrain--a horse on a raft can be a frighteningly destabilizing element. In Heart of Glass (1976), a medieval village disintegrates when the craftsman who alone knows the secret of making the town's distinctive ruby-colored glass dies; in Fitzcarraldo (1982) an Irishman drags a 300-ton ship over a mountain as part of a scheme to build an opera house in the South American jungle. Again and again, Herzog dramatizes the vulnerability of human culture in the face of nature. This tension, this challenge, inherent in human existence, is more memorable in Herzog's movies than the skepticism about Germany's feudal past in Heart of Glass or the implied critique of European colonial and mercantile adventurism in Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. Treadwell's situation generates more pathos, however, because he's not trying to sustain culture against inevitable decay. On the contrary, he thinks he's trying to escape civilization and imagines he's more in tune with the natural world than a human probably can be.

Like Heart of Glass, however, the situation in Grizzly Man brings out the philosophy major in Herzog and he lays it on thick. Heart of Glass is a fiction film and Herzog puts his musings into the characters' mouths; the ratio of musing to action is so great the movie becomes encephalitic. It's a depressive, disarticulated movie; sitting through it was indistinguishable from having a migraine, the only relief provided by derision and fast-forwarding. In Grizzly Man Herzog goes overboard in commenting on Treadwell's attitude toward the natural world, but it goes down better because some commentary seems called for.

Of course, much of Herzog's commentary is in its own way poetry of the second order. Treadwell thinks he has a mutually protective understanding with the bears; Herzog thinks Treadwell is blind to the "fact" that the entire universe is defined by chaos and murder. But "murder," implying malice and premeditation, and a consciousness that you're doing something your fellow creatures consider unjustifiable, is as much a human projection as anything Treadwell says. Male bears fighting for dominance aren't trying to "murder" each other. (And you can't say that Herzog is misspeaking a foreign language because his English is superb, and in any case the German word "der Mord" is a close cognate and carries the same connotations.) Some clich├ęs are sunny while others are occulted but both may obscure their subject.

It's interesting to note that Herzog said much the same thing about the jungle in Les Blank's documentary Burden of Dreams (1982), which covers the shooting of Fitzcarraldo and its numerous fiascos, involving an uncooperative river and the formidable mountain. We hear in that film that the historical figure Fitzcarraldo carried the ship over the mountain dismantled in 14 or so pieces, and that it was only 30 tons to begin with, and realize that Herzog has courted his disaster in the jungle. He doesn't appear to see it this way, however, and so when his juggernaut of a ship is immovably mired he says directly to Blank's camera, "The trees here are in misery, the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing, they just screech in pain." And then, "Taking a close look at what's around us there is some sort of harmony; it is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder." I suppose a German can't hear how ineffably "German," i.e., solemnly overwrought, these comments sound. Herzog doesn't even seem to catch the irony that by trying to literally drag the ship over the mountain he has, in effect, become Fitzcarraldo, times ten, a notable monomaniac in his own right.

Herzog also says some things in Burden of Dreams that could have come out of Treadwell's mouth: "If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams and I don't want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project," and, speaking of his indigenous actors, "I don't want to live in a world where there are no lions anymore, where there are no people like lions, and they are lions." Altogether Herzog does not seem very self-aware. (In Mein liebster Feind (1999), his documentary about Kinski, for instance, Herzog doesn't address what struck me as the central question: since he experienced Kinski's erratic and violent moods in close quarters at age 13, why did he send the script of Aguirre to him and why did he work with him four more times after Kinski's impossible behavior that first time out?) And yet Herzog's distance as a moviemaker from the relaxed middle range of perception and emotion enables him to understand Treadwell both from the inside and the outside. Herzog, a child of the '60s, seems to sympathize with Treadwell in some way, but is, in Ruskin's terms, "the man who perceives rightly in spite of his feelings." His irony keeps him in orbit here, despite whatever pull Treadwell may exert.

Herzog's sober irony doesn't always help him with audiences, however. With Fitzcarraldo he appeared to be attempting a David Lean movie, without the engineering team that Lean's budgets could buy. Lean could get that kind of budget because of his literate romanticism, that trademarked "intelligent" gush that drew both high and low audiences. (My enthralled response as a child to Lawrence of Arabia was, in sum, "Ottoman? Arab? I just wanna wear a robe and ride a camel.") Herzog's approach is romantic anti-romanticism--he rises to asphyxiating overviews of his characters to show us the futility of existence.

In Every Man for Himself and God Against All (1974), for instance, Herzog presents that historical question mark Kaspar Hauser as the essence, the idea, of human innocence confronting the plain, sordid, fragmented realities of human interactions and thought. But he doesn't want to push it, even to the temperamentally refined extent that David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) later did, thereby reaching a wide audience with a similar anecdote. Herzog wants to stir romantic anguish at the vulnerability of Kaspar's innocence, but he also wants Kaspar's fate to point up how inhospitable humankind is to such innocence, which he doesn't really believe in. There can be an undeniable piquancy in a depiction of the decline, death, or destruction of something you don't believe in (from the Garden of Eden to Puff, the Magic Dragon), but nobody could accuse Herzog of going in for painful-pretty fancies. He assigns blame for the grim situations in his movies, but at the same time to him grimness is just a matter of fact in this world and so the comic-poetic fairy tale qualities that might dominate the work in other hands turn muted, dim in Herzog's.

Herzog is among the least dramatic directors of international repute; he sets up his situations but then pulls back, refusing to shape them dramatically or emotionally. His m.o. has been to estrange us from the drama, the better to make us perceive life as random happenings in a Godless universe. (Herzog's world is the opposite of Dickens's--Kaspar's benefactor can't protect him from exploitation and harm and there's no kindly eye looking down on his suffering.) He's not bombastic but he is ponderous, and his movies can be awfully inert. In Grizzly Man, however, Treadwell's character and fate provide all the dramatic structure Herzog needs and the fact that it's a documentary gives him some investigative and analytic work to do. He can't just stand back and watch as the script he wrote "confirms" his beliefs.

At the same time Herzog's detachment is a positive virtue in Grizzly Man, especially for American audiences because we're so used to having characters like Treadwell presented as heroes. That's what made Gorillas in the Mist (1988), starring Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey, the zoologist who studied the primates in Africa, so weak. That movie was so set on seeing Fossey as heroic that it couldn't make sense of her failings which it was honest enough to include. Herzog doesn't present Treadwell's story as romance, putting us in a position where we have to see the hero as he sees himself or reject the entire experience, or as tragedy. Herzog's ironic outlook, which answers Treadwell's "Rousseau" with his own insistence on "Sade," strips away our habitual expectations of heroism, and leaves Treadwell exposed. Not judged (it's a Godless universe, remember), but shown to be responsible for what he himself had wrought.

Herzog does push for meaning with his own bleak speculation, which doesn't necessarily fit the occasion. When, for instance, he shows aerial footage of miles and miles of blue-ice crevasses in Alaska and says it looks like a map of Treadwell's soul, it seemed to me on the one hand that the abstract topography was awesomely gorgeous in and of itself without overlay, and on the other hand that it could be compared to pretty much anything. Plus I'm afraid Herzog finds his overblown commentary not only philosophical but prophetic. He's a prophet of the cruelly empty universe he insists upon, telling us to prepare for the Never Coming. I forgive him his self-indulgence in Grizzly Man, however, because it arises in the process of drying out the romantic-heroic elements of Treadwell's story (elements that, as a general matter, predate his story, of course, and must have contributed to his untenable sense of mission in Alaska).

One last quotation from Ruskin comparing the poets of the first and second orders, respectively, provides to my mind a perfect description of the relative qualities of Herzog and Treadwell as revealed in Grizzly Man.

[T]he one knows too much, and perceives and feels too much of the past and future, and of all things beside and around that which immediately affects him, to be in anywise shaken by it. His mind is made up; his thoughts have an accustomed current; his ways are steadfast; it is not this or that new sight which will at once unbalance him. He is tender to impression at the surface, like a rock with deep moss upon it; but there is too much mass of him to be moved. The smaller man, with the same degree of sensibility, is at once carried off his feet; he wants to do something he did not want to do before; he views all the universe in a new light through his tears; he is gay or enthusiastic, melancholy or passionate, as things come and go to him. Therefore the high creative poet might even be thought, to a great extent, impassive (as shallow people think Dante stern), receiving indeed all feelings to the full, but having a great centre of reflection and knowledge in which he stands serene, and watches the feeling, as it were, from far off.
I'm a big fan of Aguirre and can justify even its awkwardness, but I have never enjoyed or liked a Herzog movie more than Grizzly Man.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Quote of the Day:
"If you don't get what you want, it's a sign either that you did not seriously want it, or that you tried to bargain over the price."
~ Rudyard Kipling

Song of the Day:
The Rubinoos, "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend"

Happy Birthday:
Harry Connick, Jr.
O. Henry
D.H. Lawrence
Ludacris
Moby
The NYT reports that the latest trend in hospital delivery rooms is the spectator section:

Though most hospitals allow only a few guests at a time, some have abandoned limits altogether. When a patient at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., recently went into early labor, she simply moved her baby shower - guests, presents, cake and all - to her delivery room.
And then there are those who think it's a bad idea even for Dad to witness the joyous event.
John McWhorter blames welfare for the state of African-Americans in New Orleans.